Koestler Awards 2018: I’m Still Here
The Koestler Trust
We host a biannual charity sculpture show, Sculpture at Kingham Lodge, that in 2018 raised a staggering £70,000 for charity. One of the charities we support is The Koestler Trust, the UK’s leading prison arts charity. Since 1962 the Koestler Awards have motivated prisoners, secure hospital patients and immigration detainees to take part in the arts. This opportunity builds self-confidence, rewards achievement and opens new horizons for some of society’s most disadvantaged and marginalised people.
I’m Still Here
It was, therefore, a huge pleasure to visit the 2018 Koestler exhibition recently. Titled ‘I’m Still Here’ this very powerful show was themed around ‘connection’. I was shown around by Chris who picked out his favourite pieces and spoke about what they meant to him. Chris is a former prisoner and now volunteers to go back into prisons with The Forward Trust, to teach people how to break the cycle of crime and addiction to move forward with their lives. Chris couldn’t believe it when he saw a job advert in the paper that required a criminal record and time served! Whilst Chris’ criminal record is part of him, it does not define him and his passion for the art on show shines through reflecting his decision to change his way of life and not continue down the path of drugs and alcohol in prison.
This personal story helped contextualise my experience at the exhibition which was exhilarating and upsetting at the same time. So much skill, so much potential, yet so much wasted opportunity. The theme of connections focused on the impact prison has not only on the prisoner but their relationships outside of prison. Often for those imprisoned, their minds are sharpened on the relationships that may have been carelessly regarded in normal life such as children or a partner. For this reason, the curators were not professional artists but for the first time 5 families with first-hand experience of what it is like to have a prisoner in the family.
As Chris talked about his exhibition highlights, details of prison life revealed depths to the art that may have been missed to a casual observer. For example, “Baby in a cradle” was delicate and small by necessity because it was carved from prison soap.
There were many works focusing on time and Chris explained that in prison whilst having all the time in the world your time is planned for you and everyone constantly wants to know what the time is. Is it time for a visit? Is it time to use the phone? How long will my phone call last? Is it time to watch the news? All of these mean ‘is it time to make a connection with the outside world?’.
The range of people represented is an education in itself. The opening exhibit is The Mental Health Hydra (pic). An extraordinary collaboration of teenagers from a secure mental health institution. The Hydra has 6 heads each representing their issues such as the black hand clawing its way out of a skull representing the paranoia of the artist.
Chris said there had been a family day and one of the contributors to this piece was able to come. Chris saw him standing still, possibly sedated, in front of the Hydra with his family around clearly deeply moved that his contribution was on display and that his family could see the fruit of his labours though the youth was unable to vocalise his feelings.
There were paintings, sculptures, poems, recordings – a huge range of art in its broadest sense to encourage the maximum number of people to engage and find their form of expression. The scale of the exhibition is testament to its success. Set up in 1962 in Foyles Bookshop by ex-prisoner Arthur Koestler there were 200 entrants. In 2018 Sally Taylor, Chief Executive of The Koestler Trust wrote “Each year we receive more than 7,000 entries from over 3,500 entrants across the UK in 52 arts categories. More than 2,000 Awards are granted.”
Chris’ favourite piece was ‘Disconnected’ by Peter, a three-time Platinum Award Winner of the exhibition. His huge canvas was almost as accurate as a photograph, a specific expression of the fear of disconnection whilst feeling like prison property and the destruction this reeks on relationships. Chris was able to identify Peter’s prison as a therapeutic prison for long term, dangerous criminals. This information felt at odds with the power and quality of expression we looked at. Peter has said he was always interested in art but life went in a different direction. How ironic life brought him back to art in prison, yet what an opportunity.
As well as being a leading beneficiary from Sculpture at Kingham Lodge, Chris and Delphie Stockwell also sponsor the Silver Award for a Matchstick Model. Matchsticks can be obtained in large bags in prison (without the lighter addition!) and so are a popular choice of sculpture material. Often the finished effect gives no clue as to the medium. Seeing how fiddly working with matchsticks is I could glimpse how this could become a therapeutic hobby, filling both time and the mind with positive creativity to a purposeful end.
Making a difference
Chris finished by quoting the adage ‘Show me your company and I’ll show you who you are’, which he uses a lot when he speaks in prison. For me, viewing these extraordinary art works, it was part of the appreciation that our contribution from Sculpture at Kingham Lodge is making a positive difference to many lives, within and without the prison walls. Should you be near the Southbank Centre when the exhibition is on I highly recommend it, should you be moved to donate to The Koestler Trust, I commend it to you.